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Baby Boomers at Work: Tools and Trends

Has anyone seen Madonna’s new music video for the ‘Girls Gone Wild’ single? It’s roughly four minutes of ferocious dancey dance intensity, deemed “too raunchy” by YouTube (but still available on Vimeo). Like her or not, at 54, Lady Madge perfectly exhibits the characteristics her generation has come to be known for: tenacity, reinvention, and rocking the house.

Meet the Trends

Our world saw some of the most significant changes in history during the ’60s and ’70s. It was during these twenty years that Baby Boomers came of working age, and the tools and trends that arose in the office were as equally radical:

Word Processing

The term word processing was coined by IBM in the late ’60s. By 1971, a third of all working women in the US were secretaries, and the impact these standalone machines would have on their careers was evident. That same year, an article in The New York Times reported on a business equipment trade show:

The “buzz word” for this year’s show was “word processing”, or the use of electronic equipment, such as typewriters; procedures and trained personnel to maximize office efficiency. At the IBM exhibition a girl typed on an electronic typewriter. The copy was received on a magnetic tape cassette which accepted corrections, deletions, and additions and then produced a perfect letter for the boss’s signature….

This era also saw the production of the cathode ray tube (CRT) system from companies like Linolex, Wang Laboratories, Lexitron and Vydec. In layman’s terms: text on a screen. It was the first true WYSIWYG office machine, and it was both affordable and easy for secretarial staff to operate.

The Separation of Software and Hardware

Another win for IBM: the floppy disk. Made commercially available in 1971, the introduction of the floppy marked a new stage in the evolution of storage media. While previous methods (mainly cassette tapes) could only hold a page or two of text, IBM’s disks were capable of holding 80 to 100 pages. This increase in storage capacity allowed users to, for the first time, create and edit multi-page documents all from within one receptacle.

Floppy disks could also be used to hold programs. Today it’s hard to imagine programs as being an actual part of the equipment, but they were before storage devices were advanced enough to house them. Once floppies came along, programs could be updated more economically.

The Microprocessor 

In 1971, a combination of the transistor and the integrated circuit yielded the first commercially available microprocessor: the Intel 4004. The resulting calculators of the early ’70s were the most advanced form of computing available to the masses and cost — dramatic pause — hundreds of dollars. (Meanwhile, the closest thing to a general purpose computer, the minicomputer, cost several tens of thousands of dollars.) While not a huge hit at first, the microprocessor would later revolutionize computing, forever changing the way engineers design electronic products and systems.

Seasoned Survivors

Boomers have proven, time and time again, that they can be adaptive to the requirements of changing conditions and technology; that they are masters of reinvention for survival (like Madonna). Today, for example, instead of thinking about retirement, a number of Boomers are starting over. The number of students between the ages of 50 to 64 increased 17 percent nationwide between fall 2007 and fall 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is their collective answer to both an alarming rise in layoffs and a general interest to start over post the retirement plans offered by their long time employers.

While  it’s exciting that Boomer expertise will be a part of the working world for another couple of decades, it also means holding onto the challenges that come along with their generation. In the next part of this series, we’ll take a look at how to navigate through a few of them.

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